In a ground-breaking decision, the Supreme Court of India has outlined guidelines for passive euthanasia, thereby legalizing it under certain circumstances. Withholding of lifesaving treatment, such as antibiotics or a heart-lung machine, is to be allowed in exceptional cases, but only after a review by medical experts and approval of the high court.
The guidelines were declared on March 7, 2011, as part of a court decision rejecting a plea for its use on a 60 year old former nurse of King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Mumbai, Aruna Shanbaug. She had been in a vegitative state after being assaulted and strangled by a sweeper at the KEM Hospital, where she was working, in 1973.
With this decision, India joins a handful of sovereign states and regional jurisdictions to have allowed some form of passive euthanasia. The US state of Oregon allowed people who had been diagnosed with terminal illness and had six months to live, to take a lethal dose of prescribed medication and die voluntarily, by the Death with Dignity Act (1994). This act was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2006. Following this judgment, the state of Washington passed a similar act in 2008 and a court in Montana upheld the right of assisted suicide. The following year, the decision of the lower court was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court.
In 2002, Netherlands became the first country to allow some form of active euthanasia. Belgium also allowed euthanasia, but only for adults. Switzerland, Albania and Germany are other states in Europe which recognize the right of some form of euthanasia.
In Colombia, a Constitutional Court ruling in 1997 recognized the right to euthanasia but it was not followed up by any legislative action. In India also, the Supreme Court has stated that legislative action must be taken before the implementation of the ruling. This may take longer than expected in a religious society. According to the BBC, the law minister of India, Veerappa Moily, has said that a political debate was required.
"There is no question of concurring or not with the judgment.
"The Supreme Court is right that without a law you cannot resort to this kind of a decision with a judicial order.
"The right to life is a right vested with a person. Therefore, there is a need for a serious debate into the matter. It has to be examined, it has to be debated," he has told the media.
Therefore, unlike some other groundbreaking decisions in the past, like the decriminalizing of attempted suicide, it may not be easy to enforce the passive euthanasia ruling of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, politicians are aware of the respect the court has in the country and would find hard to ignore its ruling.